Ecocide banner



  • Posted on

75 years after the Nuremberg Trials, a new international crime of "Ecocide"?

A new move to criminalise mass damage and destruction of ecosystems or 'ecocide' has taken a step forward.

There have been calls to create a crime of ecocide at both a European and International level for some time (for example the island states Vanuatu and the Maldives called for the idea to be given serious consideration at the International Criminal Court's ("ICC") annual assembly of States Parties in December 2019).

At present the ICC does have the power to prosecute environmental crimes, but only within the context of the four existing crimes (genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression) and not during peace time.

Now, Professor Philippe Sands QC, Professor of Public Understanding of Law at UCL Laws and Florence Mumba, a former judge at the ICC are leading a group of experts to draft a legal definition of "ecocide". The group has been convened by the "Stop Ecocide Foundation" on the request of interested parliamentarians from governing parties in Sweden.

What then is such a definition likely to be? Jojo Mehta, chair of the Stop Ecocide Foundation (quoted in The Guardian) states that "it would have to involve mass, systematic or widespread destruction […] Amazon deforestation on a huge scale, deep see bottom trawling or oil spills. We want to place it at the same level as atrocities investigated by the ICC."[i]

Once completed the definition is intended to form the basis of an international crime, alongside the existing definitions in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the treaty establishing the ICC, which entered into force on 1 July 2002 ("the ICC Statute"). As of November 2019, 123 states are party to the ICC Statute.

The ICC does have the power to bring prosecutions in some circumstances. However, by including a definition of ecocide in the ICC Statute, those nations which have ratified the convention would be obliged to incorporate it into national legislation. How many prosecutions would be successfully brought remains to be seen. However, convictions are not the only motivation for those seeking to establish such a definition. Equally important is the desire to create a cultural shift in how harm against nature is perceived. Jojo Mehta (quoted in BBC Future) explains, "If something's a crime, we place it below a moral red line […] you shift the cultural mindset as well as the legal reality."[ii]

The timing of the initiative is also pertinent, marking the 75th anniversary of the opening of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, which first introduced both the definitions and rules of modern international criminal justice. For those seeking to establish a definition of ecocide, this current research represents international law's next step.

[i] "International lawyers draft plan to criminalise ecosystem description", Owen Bowcott, 30 November 2020, The Guardian (accessed 30.11.2020)

[ii] "Ecocide: Should killing nature be a crime?" Sophie Yeo, 6 November 2020, BBC Futures (accessed 30.11.2020)

This article is for general guidance only. It provides useful information in a concise form. Action should not be taken without obtaining specific legal advice.

This article is for general guidance only. It provides useful information in a concise form. Action should not be taken without obtaining specific legal advice.
Subscribe to our newsletter

    Get in touch

    By clicking the button below, you will be acknowledging our use of your personal data in accordance with our Privacy Policy